HANCOCK COUNTY — Mattie Waggoner has a solid sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. She knows she’s too young to drink alcohol and recognizes the risks associated with it — but many of her peers don’t.

Waggoner, along with 15 other Hancock County high school students, are out to change that.

They’re all student representatives for Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse, a community organization that partners with other area coalitions to address and reduce teen drug and alcohol use throughout the county. Ten of those representatives attended a national conference in Indianapolis this week to discuss the issues they see their peers struggling with, along with the most effective measures to intervene and reduce those activities.

Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, or CADCA, a national organization that targets teen drug and alcohol abuse, organized the national conference, which ran from Monday to Thursday in the J.W. Marriott in downtown Indianapolis. In total, more than 1,500 activists from community organizations — students and adults alike — gathered for the conference to hear from specialists about these issues.

For Waggoner, attending the conference was the first step to making a difference.

“I’ve heard all the stories about the kids drinking at parties,” the New Palestine High School senior said. “We want to highlight the consequences of those decisions, and this is a way to actually do something about it.”

The conference focused not only on strategies for addressing teen substance abuse but also on helping coalitions that have adopted this as their mission more effective.

Putting experts in the same room with students who have the ability to make a difference among their peer groups is key, said Jasmine Carrasco, youth programs manager for CADCA.

Everyone comes to the table with different approaches and ideas; solutions come in finding common ground, she said.

“It’s a way to get everyone together and talk about how everyone has addressed these problems and identify the specific strategies that have worked,” she said.

Organizers led groups through programs that addressed specific issues, including underage drinking, and taught them the most effective ways to assess how widespread the issues are. They also provided tips about how to connect with other, like-minded area organizations.

Tim Retherford, director of NASA, predicts the strategies he and his student representatives learned at the conference will prove invaluable.

“This really gives us the skills and tools we need to address these issues head on and work effectively against them,” said Retherford, who has led NASA since 2010.

He added that because of the relatively short, 25-minute commute to downtown Indianapolis from Hancock County, he was able to bring 10 of the 16 NASA student leaders. Each county school corporation works with Retherford to select four students who represent the organization’s values, and the group meets regularly to discuss what substance abuse trends students are noticing in the schools and what can be done to change them.

In addition to partnering with local schools, NASA also works with other nonprofits, county law enforcement and faith-driven organizations.

“As opposed to all of us doing our own thing while working toward similar goals, now, we can come together and see what’s worked well, what hasn’t, then piece together a plan of action,” Retherford said. “We want to impact as many people as possible.”

Changing attitudes toward the dangers of substance abuse means targeting not only teenagers, Retherford added.

“There are some parents who may shrug and say, ‘Well, I did that stuff when I was growing up, too.’” he said. “We have to change those norms to truly make a difference.”

He recognizes that it might be hard for some of his student representatives to make a stand against the issues, but he believes the young role models can make an impact.

“They have a tough job, but they all have strong personalities and know they’re doing the right thing,” Retherford said. “They’re willing to stand up for that, and that’s what will continue to make us successful.”

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.